Focus is Everything

By on September 9, 2020
Focus is Everything

“You’re talking to the wrong person. If you want ideas on how to improve this work cell, you need to talk to my supervisor, not me.”
– Worker in Factory

“Damn, it’s tough to stay focused on work when I’m worrying about the virus, my family, my job.”
– Worker in Home Office

Two very different work environments. Same issue. Two workers whose minds are not focused on the work they’re doing. One is going through the motions in a factory work cell, thinking about a whole variety of things, none having to do with the product she’s building. The other is working remotely, often distracted by worries about COVID-19.

Both are disengaged from their work. And this disengagement, this lack of focus, is hurting their organizations.

This lack of focus is also hurting both workers on a personal level.

The factory worker’s knowledge about the work she’s doing isn’t being tapped. Clearly, she knows more about how to improve work processes in her work cell than her supervisor. She does the work, he doesn’t. Her supervisor has taught her to be dependent. He has taught her not to value what she knows. He has taught her to simply do what she’s told to do. Period.

So, she remains silent.

The worker in his home office is not also making full use of his capabilities. He knows that he could make his workspace more efficient. He knows that his colleagues, also working out of home offices, could benefit from his insights into ways to improve their shared work processes. But fear of the virus keeps consuming large chunks of his thinking, effectively shutting down his creativity, his willingness to engage in a meaningful way with others.

And he also remains silent.

I’ve heard many variants of the first worker’s comment, “You need to talk to my supervisor…” Sometimes the feeling that lies behind the comment is “I don’t give a damn about the company because they don’t give a damn about me so just leave me alone.” At other times, the feeling that lies behind the comment is “I really don’t know enough to answer that question…but my supervisor does.

And I’m a worker who has experienced what the second worker feels. Even though I’ve been fortunate in experiencing the kind of human interactions that happen when doing remote training and also fortunate to have colleagues who give me positive feedback about my work, I still find myself getting distracted by the virus. When my grandchildren attended university classes, were they exposed to the virus? When I had dinner with their families, observing the wearing of masks and social distancing, could my wife and I have been exposed to the virus? And I know from talking with people who are working remotely that my fears are quite typical. Have you experienced these fears?

In both cases we have workers whose ability to make full use of their capabilities has been damaged. The good news is that this damage can be undone.

What it takes is intense focus on the work they are doing.

But this kind of intense focus on work, the sort of focus that drives out fear, that builds confidence doesn’t come easily. It can be developed with good coaching, with good feedback, with good training. Drawing on my own personal experience, I know that when I was at the controls of a B-25 in USAF flight training and lost one engine on takeoff and another on final approach and had to do a deadstick landing, I was enveloped with fear for about 10 seconds. Quickly the fear was driven out by an intense focus on the work that had to happen, focus that was a product of excellent training and coaching.

What kind of actions can we take to increase the confidence of our first worker and to drive out the fear felt by our second worker? Here are five.

1. Making sure they understand they’re being heard. “I really want to hear from you about the work you are doing and the challenges you are facing.

a. Supervisors should take regular walks through work areas, not for giving advice, but for listening to workers and learning more about the work they do. Upper level executives should do the same.

b. Managers and supervisors should regularly meet via ZOOM, Skype, or Microsoft Teams with remote workers simply to listen to them and to learn more about the work they do. Upper level executives should do the same.

2. Showing respect for the work they do. “I really value your ideas because you know more about the work you do than anyone else.

a. Collect employee ideas about how to improve work processes and act upon them. David Mann’s The Idea Board is an exceptionally powerful tool to use to make this happen. Here’s a link to a video about The Idea Board

b. Give awards for contributions workers make to improved profitability and productivity.

c. Mount posters throughout work areas (physical or virtual) publicizing these contributions.

3. Nourishing teamwork. “You’re a big contributor to the success of our team. Without your contributions, our team wouldn’t be nearly as productive as it is.

a. Hold morning meetings during which individual workers make presentations to their teammates on improvement they’ve made in work processes. Paul Aker’s company FastCap, Inc. in Ferndale, WA makes great use of this technique for building teamwork as does Cambridge Engineering in Chesterfield, MO. These meetings could be held on site or remotely.

b. Establish dedicated team meeting areas. Several of my clients have done this, with a very positive impact on teamwork. Posted in these areas were challenges met by team members in doing their work along with suggestions on how to meet these challenges. The teams also planned celebrations in these areas, bringing in refreshments, singing songs together, continually building a sense of camaraderie. These team meeting spaces can be created virtually using tools such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, or Google Hangout.

4. Demonstrating a commitment to helping workers continually grow. “We’re committed to helping you advance in your career.

a. Provide training for all workers, on site and remote, that will help them advance in their careers. Doing this says loud and clear to the worker, “we believe you have real potential to advance in your career and we’re committed to helping make that happen.

b. Pay the tuition for courses workers could take at colleges or universities that would help them advance in their careers with their company.

c. Allow workers to shadow their supervisor/manager/director/VP/CEO for a day to gain a better understanding of the kind of work they do.

5. Being your self’s best friend. “I really value myself, the voice that speaks within me, that encourages me, that doesn’t judge me.

a. Ann Weiser Cornell, PhD, in her book, The Power of Focusing, offers this sage advice. “Focusing is being a good listener to your inner self. There are parts of you that want to be heard, without judgement, without criticism, without advice. In focusing, you can give yourself that non-judgmental listening that feels good and brings greater clarity.”

b. In your workspaces, on-site or in your remote office, write on Post-It™ notes about challenges you’ve met, obstacles you’ve overcome, ideas you’ve contributed to your team, and mount them as continuing reminders of the good work you’ve done. They’re rewards for your beautiful inner self.

Each of these actions will have a significant impact on the damaged sense of confidence in one’s ability felt by far too many line workers. Each of actions will also help remote workers during this very challenging time in the history of work. They will help us maintain a clearer focus on the work we are doing, fueled by pride in our work and the knowledge that we are not really working in isolation. Ultimately, they will let the clear light of hope shine brightly in our work areas, wherever they may be.

Focus really is everything.

A Note to the Reader: Throughout this article, I’ve used the term “worker” to refer to all of us, whatever our level in the organizational hierarchy. Many organizations use the term only to describe those who produce the organization’s products or deliver its services. I’m sure we can agree that we all do work, hence, we are all “workers.”

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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